Fri. May 17th, 2024


When Harvard University and Colorado State University recently posted job ads indicating that applicants should be very recent recipients of Ph.D.’s, many people saw the ads as confirmation of something they already suspected about the unspoken hiring preferences for entry-level positions in the humanities.

Search committees, say professors and leaders of scholarly associations, strongly favor applicants whose degrees are not more than two or three years old.

Two weeks ago, Colorado State University’s English department posted an ad seeking an assistant professor specializing in pre-1900 American literature and culture. The ad specified that applicants should have a “Ph.D. in English or American Studies or closely related area between 2010 and time of appointment.”

Harvard University’s comparative-literature department had posted a similar ad this month. It stated that applicants for a tenure-track assistant professor opening “must have received the Ph.D. or equivalent degree in the past three years (2009 or later), or show clear evidence of planned receipt of the degree by the beginning of employment.”

Marc Bousquet, an associate professor in English at Emory University, said the ads reflect the reality of whom search committees routinely favor without saying so explicitly. “They blurted out the truth about the feelings and biases that people on hiring committees have,” he said. “This is not unusual. What’s unusual is that they were published.”

Such time restrictions on when an applicant earned a Ph.D. are common for postdoctoral fellowships, but not for tenure-track jobs.

Some critics of Harvard’s and Colorado State’s decisions to include a time restriction on the Ph.D. in their ads speculate that it may have been designed to help the search committees manage the overwhelming numbers of job applications they expected to get. Others complained that the ads were unethical and a form of age discrimination.

The backlash prompted both universities to revise the language in the postings, and both universities have denied that any form of discrimination was intended.

But leaders of scholarly associations and academics who’ve sat on hiring committees are still concerned that search committees for all kinds of positions beyond Harvard and Colorado State will toss applications in the trash without reading them if a person has had their Ph.D. for more than a few years.

Many of the academic leaders agree that future ads will be written more carefully because of the reaction to the Harvard and Colorado State ads. But, critics of the ads say, search committees’ biases will not change immediately.

Some academics feel that, whether explicitly stated or not, the Ph.D. is being treated like a can of beans or a carton of milk with a “sell-by” date after which the degree has expired.

Scholars say that the people who would be disproportionately hurt by time restrictions on the Ph.D. are adjuncts, postdoctoral fellows, women, older candidates, and minority applicants.

Ms. Hu-DeHart, at Brown, said that the “geniuses” at Harvard and Colorado State who included the time restrictions on the Ph.D. in those job ads apparently presumed that candidates who have not landed a job may have been drifting from year to year.

“What if that’s not the case?” Ms. Hu-Dehart asked. “What if they have been lucky enough to get a competitive two-year postdoc,” which provides a candidate with an opportunity to gain teaching experience and time to work on turning a dissertation into a publishable manuscript.

Since postdoctoral fellowships usually take up to two years to complete, the delay would shut them out of the job opportunities, Ms. Hu-Dehart said. She also said that since many postdoctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences are designed to encourage underrepresented minorities to apply, people who take such positions will face another barrier to tenure-track opportunities.

Jeffrey J. Williams, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said ads that put a time restriction on the Ph.D. would clearly harm adjunct instructors’ chances at the tenure-track jobs. “It effectively encodes them as an underclass,” he said, “and doesn’t even allow hope for getting a tenure-track job. There are already obstacles. This is the final barrier.”

The message the ads sent to graduate students, Mr. Williams added, “is that it doesn’t matter if you’ve spent seven or more years earning a Ph.D. You only have three years to get a job.”

Ansley A. Abraham, the director of the Southern Regional Education Board’s State Doctoral Scholars Program, which prepares minority scholars for academic positions, sees another potential consequence. Limiting the degree year to the past three years could possibly benefit women and minorities, he said, but could also have a disparate impact on white Ph.D.’s and raise questions about reverse discrimination.

“More women and minorities have gotten their degrees in the last three years to five years than ever before,” he said. “You could argue that if you limit the time frame of the Ph.D., you might be increasing the opportunities for them to be in the pool.”

Mr. Bousquet said he will continue to advise his graduate students to delay receiving their Ph.D.’s even if that means paying tuition or a dissertation maintenance fee to ensure that they have publications and a strong application before they enter the job market. “The prejudice is real,” he said, “whether spoken or not.”

Stacey Patton is a writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education. She can be reached at

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